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Mile High Natural Awakenings

Return Native Lands to Protect Nature

Indigenous elder wearing headdress

Elena Olesik/

Throughout the country, land is being transferred to or co-managed by Indigenous tribes, repatriating culturally and ecologically important resources with the former occupants and local communities to accommodate their perspective and participation in the management of the land, wildlife and plants. Some tribes are using traditional knowledge of how to support wildlife, use prescribed fires and protect ancestral grounds.

In California, a land trust recently transferred 1,199 acres of redwood forest and prairie to the Esselen tribe. In Maine, the Five Tribes of the Wabanaki Confederacy recently reacquired a 150-acre island with the help of land trusts. Other recent land transfers to tribes with the goal of conservation have taken place in Oregon, New York and elsewhere.

Traditional Ecological Knowledge, a system of Indigenous management styles that evolved over centuries of culture immersed in nature, is increasingly seen by conservationists as synergistic with the global campaign to protect biodiversity and manage nature in a way that hedges against climate change. The Nature Conservancy has institutionalized the transfer of ecologically important land with its Indigenous Peoples and Local Communities Program worldwide. Erin Myers Madeira, director of the program, says, “Indigenous people are the original stewards of all the lands and waters in North America, and there’s an extensive knowledge and management practices that date back millennia.”

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